Rise of the machines

Daily Mail – September 30, 2011

The U.S. Navy’s latest stealth drone has completed a series of rigorous summer flight tests – taking it one step closer to its first automated carrier landing.

Reaching speeds of 180 knots, two experimental X-47B drones have completed their summer test schedule to evaluate software and other modifications before the first test aircraft carrier landing in 2013.

While the X-47B is expected to usher in a new era of unmanned aircraft, critics have raised concerns over the lack of human control in increasingly deadly military hardware.

The fighter-sized aircraft features an innovative, GPS-based navigation and landing system that will enable it to land autonomously, with precision, on the moving deck of a Navy aircraft carrier.

In addition to the planned carrier launches and landings in 2013, the program will also demonstrate the ability of the X-47B to conduct autonomous aerial refuelling operations in 2014.

The X-47B is a computer-controlled UAS that takes off, flies a preprogrammed mission, then returns to base in response to mouse clicks from its mission operator.

The operator actively monitors the aircraft and responds to air traffic control instructions, but does not ‘fly’ it via a remote stick-and-throttle control the way some unmanned systems are currently operated.

Unmanned drones have been used to attack targets with Hellfire missiles for a quite a while in the War on Terror.

The X-47B, being tested and developed by Northrop Grumman, would take the idea several steps further.

First, the operational version of the X-47B would be able to convey a much larger payload in the form of two 2,000-pound JDAMs bombs.

This would allow the operational air craft to strike larger and more well-protected targets than a Predator with a Hellfire could.

Second, the operational vehicle would be able to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. That means that it is designed to withstand the corrosive effects of salt water.

It will also be able to land on the air craft carrier after completing its mission, something that is one of the most challenging skills a naval aviator must learn.

Finally, unlike conventional drones, the operational version of the X-47B will be able to fly autonomously, without a controller with a joy stick.

That means that the flight path and the intended target would be preprogrammed into the vehicle and it would fly on its own to the target, drop its ordinance, and then return.

The aircraft is built stealthy, sort of like a miniature version of a stealth bomber, so it should be able to penetrate an enemy’s air defence system.

Without a pilot, the operational aircraft will be able to conduct longer missions that would ordinarily be beyond the endurance of a human being.